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March 11, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Wasted Opportunities

If you’ve ever been In the unenvIable posItIon of pIckIng your way through the fIeld of shamblIng bodIes that stretches all the way along Courtenay Place early on a sunday mornIng, you’ll understand that drInkIng Is an inescapable part of the fabrIc of youth culture In new Zealand.

Our relationship with alcohol has, in our short history, been an intense one ever since the time when alcohol was used to soothe anxieties held by new immigrants who lived in fear of the ‘New World’. Drinking has always had a pronounced effect on New Zealand society, and it is both inaccurate and dishonest to claim that this is in any way a new development. That said, in recent decades alcohol has become more normalised, more available and more affordable than ever before and while many understand that the effects of long-term heavy alcohol consumption are serious things that ought not to
be ignored, very few ever confront the idea that they might have a problem. Because as  Angela Fouhy (a Victoria undergraduate) puts it: “heavy drinking is an accepted thing, so it’s impossible to know if people have a problem because everyone’s doing it. how do you tell if someone’s hurting themselves when you’re drunk too?” for many, drinking is a defining aspect of university life, and while drinking isn’t an intrinsically abnormal behaviour, it warrants constant and unforgiving examination.

a good place to start might be in considering what exactly constitutes ‘excessive’ drinking. predictably there isn’t really a consensus on this question. It’s impossible to live in New Zealand and not know that we have a problem with binge drinking, but the defining parameters of that behavior are usually left to our imagination. Presumably being drunk is involved but being drunk isn’t necessarily harmful and in of itself. One standard but imperfect measurement is where the blood alcohol concentration (the measurement of the amount of alcohol in a person’s blood by volume) of any individual goes beyond 0.08 per cent—which is also the upper edge of the legal drink-driving limit (although New Zealanders are usually tested through the concentrations found in their breath). The number of drinks that have to be consecutively consumed for there to be a binge varies wildly depending on who is asked, but the alcohol advisory Council of New Zealand (ALAC) [on their website] defines binge or risky drinking as “where an adult reports they have consumed the equivalent of seven or more glasses of alcohol during a single drinking occasion.”

When asked if they considered themselves binge drinkers, students interviewed were united in saying “no”, in one case believing that they “don’t really do it frequently enough to be genuinely concerned.” Similarly, when quizzed about whether or not they felt that they drank intelligently—that is they were aware of the risks and understood what drinking—again the answer was a unilateral “yes”. however, when they were confronted with the alaC definition of binge drinking most were taken aback.

Their surprise is by no means the exception to the rule. While slightly dated now, a 2007 survey by the Victoria University harm reduction group, an organization whose aim was to reduce harmful drinking practices among students (and who were also responsible for the ‘stick with your mates’ campaign), found that 72 per cent of female and 75 per cent of male students reported ‘heavy episodic drinking’ recently. More interestingly, in 2009 a report for the same organisation by Dr Fiona Hutton summarising a survey of students in first-year halls (Victoria House, Weir House, St. George, Cumberland and Te Puni) between the ages of 17 and 25, made a number of troubling but not entirely surprising findings. when asked if their drinking had increased since attending university, 215 out of 355 respondents answered in the affirmative. Only six responders said that they drank everyday, which points to more infrequent but more explosive drinking events. Angela Fouhy, who spent a year in Te Puni, said that the results of the survey were totally to be expected. “I know so many people who I have relationships with only because of alcohol. It’s unavoidable in a hall.”

Which raises an interesting point: one of the great attractions of university life for many is that it allows you to meet a whole host of new and exciting people on your own, newly sort-of-adult terms. If alcohol is the basis on which those
relationships are formed, do they have any meaning when you wake up the next morning and you don’t know what you talked about for three hours? Rowan Carter, a third-year Psychology student, argues that while he does have relationships that are probably predicated on being drunk, these relationships aren’t important ones. “They’re probably scumbags anyway but i’m drunk and I don’t care.” Another student said that he thought that “you know you’re going to be drinking like that before you turn up. If you got here and nobody drank it wouldn’t feel like you were doing the university thing properly.”

One final thing to consider on the topic of relationships: how many students have sex lives that rely heavily on alcohol to function? “When i’m going to hook up with someone and they’re like ‘i need to have a drink first’, it totally bums me out. it happens a lot here”, said one Canadian student. Also reported were unwanted sexual advances—which “can totally kill your buzz”—and sex that was almost immediately regretted. “I know some people can do it and enjoy it, but I’ve never met anyone in a club and then gone off with them and felt good about it the next day. and I keep doing it when I’m drunk, which sucks.”

Beginning in 2005, and repeating as new universities were added to the testing pool, a grand survey of sorts was  conducted of New Zealand students as a whole. By 2009, the University of Auckland was the only one not to participate. The initial round surveyed 2548 students and rated the behavior of 68 per cent as ‘hazardous’. It’s easy to scoff at media reports of student drinking as absurd hysteria, but the breakdown of the ‘hazardous’ cohort is pretty scary. In a four-week
period, 33 per cent blacked out, 6 per cent had unprotected sex, 5 per cent said that they were physically aggressive toward someone, and 9 per cent of women and 11 per cent of men either drove drunk or were passengers in a vehicle with an intoxicated driver. Upon being confronted with these figures, one worried-looking student responded: “I know that’s intense behavior, [but] i don’t think it’s that surprising even though I sort of wish I did. I’m also not sure if listing things like that is the best way to try and stop us from behaving that way.”

Most students are, of course, not alcoholics in the traditional sense of the term. having a good time and having a drink have always gone hand-in-hand with each other, and it would be reductive to argue that all students are problem drinkers. That said, it doesn’t seem as if the association is made by students between their behaviour and that of people who were somehow bonafide alcoholics, even though most students didn’t really know what the difference was when asked. the CAGE questionnaire [see insert], used to screen for potential for alcoholism, induced anxiety in some when
presented with it.

Number one was often deflected with “only when i’m hung-over”, while number four was the one most readily dismissed (and is considered to be the most important, which is promising). Two and three, on the other hand, were not so easy to avoid. It’s something worth thinking about. As Elizabeth Mayes, in the last year of her political science degree, philosophises: “we’re more educated but it also feels like that makes it more acceptable somehow. It’s less frowned-upon.” It’s certainly something worth thinking about.

The CAGE questionnaire

Two “yes” responses mean that the individual merits further investigation for addiction.

1)Have you ever felt you needed to cut down on your drinking?

2) Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

3) Have you ever felt guilty about drinking?

4) Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?



Patrick Hunn


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